What Will Happen Next? Notes from Janesville, Wisconsin
To say that most supporters of candidate Scott Walker expected or hoped to see him do half the things he’s done since getting elected would be an overstatement. The governor’s policies have been a surprise not only to his opponents, but to his supporters too. He has taken such drastic measures that Democrats are touting former Governor Tommy Thompson, the previous standard for bull-headed Republican leadership, as an example of the bipartisanship that Walker should aspire to match.
The governor’s legislation has so far included: gutting the state’s environmental regulations, authorizing the sale of power plants without competitive bidding, decimating the UW system by proposing the separation of UW-Madison from the rest of UW campuses, allowing discrimination based on sexual orientation, taking away support for family planning, and effectively eliminating collective bargaining. The latter was so controversial that it brought on the huge demonstrations in Madison this February, March, and April.
Though Walker’s supporters insist that he has been upfront about his intentions all along, the protests that exploded all across the state of Wisconsin since the original Budget Repair Bill was proposed in mid-February are a clear indication that the governor has gone too far.
There are historical reasons why the governor’s attack on unions plays poorly here in Wisconsin. We consider unions to be if not a part of our conservative values, certainly part of our proud history: the nation’s first modern trade union was formed in Milwaukee in 1865 when Local 125 was part of the Molders Union.
Among its many labor milestones, Wisconsin passed the first workers compensation law in 1911 and the state was the first in the nation to pass unemployment compensation legislation in 1932. However, as the years went by, and these once-groundbreaking laws became a part of our social fabric, union members started to vote Republican.
In November 2010, Walker’s opponent, Democrat Tom Barrett, captured only 63% of the voters in union households. I remember talking to local union leaders following the elections. They were frustrated with how many members seemed to have little appreciation for what the unions have done and continue to do for them, and with how difficult it had been to persuade union members to spend time knocking on doors.
The 2010 election results seemed to indicate that the culture of individualism had won the battle against collective culture. Republicans peeled away Wisconsin union members and Democratic voters with a range of conservative issues like tax breaks and the right to bear arms. They gained control of the State Assembly, State Senate, and the Governor’s Mansion. But, once Walker actually began to push forward with his extreme agenda, union members were reminded why the unions were there and how much they needed them. They went back to the Democratic Party.
Walker’s changes will cause real pay cuts, which will go into effect as soon as the laws are passed, costing public employees hundreds of dollars of lost wages per month and thousands of dollars per year. Everyone understands that there is a connection between proposing these draconian measures and cutting back the power of the unions.
These days, a good conversation starter with a conservative in Wisconsin may go something like this: “The governor would get a lot more accomplished if he didn’t go quite so far,” a statement that most conservatives will agree with before proceeding with a friendly discussion of what the governor could actually do to fix the system instead of destroying it.
The pushiness and the overall aggressiveness of Governor Walker’s governing approach has rubbed even some conservatives the wrong way. After all, he gave the legislature just a few days to deliberate the massive bill, which included everything from putting an end to collective bargaining and making state employees pay for their own retirement plans, to the sale of power plants without competitive bidding, refusing to negotiate on anything, and blaming public employees for the overall state of the budget.
Janesville, where I proudly serve on the City Council, is a good example of a community that veers to the right on social issues. Traditionally, the citizens of Janesville regard the much more liberal Madison, only 45 minutes north of here, with a certain sense of concern and distrust. Yet, the governor’s push against organized labor and seemingly every other group of citizens, save for the wealthiest members of our society, managed to put Madison, Janesville, and most everybody else who feels that being able to organize and bargain collectively is part of Wisconsin’s proud heritage, on the same page.
When Governor Walker came to power, he announced that there was a financial crisis. Considering the difficult current economic situation in Janesville, which, as of March 2011, has an unemployment rate of 10.2%, it was not difficult to play the crisis card.
It is the next step—the creation of a scapegoat—that takes a special kind of leader. This is what Governor Walker did; he blamed the perceived financial crisis on the unions and the public employees of Wisconsin.
Janesville and Madison may not have much in common, but one of the things that brings us together is the fact that both communities have many government employees and teachers, all of whom feel personally targeted by the Governor’s actions.
Scott Walker’s efforts have actually somewhat backfired, causing more unions to organize than before. Most recently, Janesville saw the creation of the Association of Police Supervisors, which organized in an attempt to preserve that which the Governor wants to take away.
There is an overall sense that the system is out of control, though, ironically, Governor Walker is managing to control his caucus like no one before him has, at least not in recent memory. Several Republican Senators who previously stood with labor have voted in support of the new union-busting legislation, which takes away union to bargaining rights for working conditions, requires annual union certification, and, most importantly, eliminates mandatory union contribution by state employees.
Spring has arrived in Wisconsin and with better weather come bigger rallies. July 12 will bring about recall elections for those State Senators for whom enough signatures were gathered, as well as more opportunities for Wisconsinites to express their opinions. The state of Wisconsin is busy making history and setting a national precedent. We all want to know what will happen next.